Brandon Wu on Activism
Interview by Carmen Peota | Photo by Sam Levitan
“I’m very much an introvert,” says Brandon Wu (MPP ’12). That’s a surprising admission coming from someone who, as a member of the Green Climate Fund Board, has butted heads with world leaders about who should pay what for climate change impacts and now is holding wealthy countries accountable for promises made in the Paris Climate Agreement.
Wu’s introduction to activism came during his sophomore year at Yale, when he went to Washington, DC, to protest trade and monetary policies and got swept up in a mass arrest. Although he was detained only 12 hours and the arrest was later deemed illegal, the impact was lasting. “That radicalized me in a lot of ways and put me on a path,” he says.
That path led eventually to ActionAid, where Wu has focused on climate policy and now oversees a team working on other global justice issues as well.
What were the Green Climate Fund Board discussions like?
The power dynamics on the board were similar to those in any other international space where money is involved. You have rich countries that want to dictate how the money will be used and recipient countries who say, you don’t understand our situation.
What did you contribute to the conversation?
I was telling the European Union, United States, and Japan that they don’t get to dictate what happens when they give that money. It’s the recipient countries that know how to use it and what’s needed in their countries. Donor-driven development strategies just don’t work in the long run, and we have decades of experience showing us that.
And how was that message received?
It was a constant struggle. You can imagine that when the United States, for example, is giving money to a United Nations body, Congress is in the back of the negotiators’ minds.
Can you draw a line between your activism and tangible results?
We advocated for a global climate fund, and that push resulted in the Green Climate Fund, which now has billions of dollars to support climate action in developing countries. And there are a lot of little policy wins that are directly attributable to our work. The fund has a gender policy and action plan that wouldn’t have happened without us and good policies around accountability to local communities and civil society.
And there’s been a different kind of victory, more around organizing NGOs to make unified calls for action. On that front, I can confidently say my work has had a concrete impact. We’ve bridged divisions over the last five years, for example, between environmental NGOs and groups focused more on global justice or human rights.
What skills do you need to do your job?
Being a clear and persuasive communicator is the primary skill my job requires. I’m well-practiced at speaking the jargon of international development and use that when I’m in certain policy spaces. But a lot of my job is communicating what’s happening in policy spaces to a broader audience, whether it’s activists on our email list or the media.
What led you to the Humphrey School?
I needed a bit of a kick-start. I had been in a relatively junior position, and I was trying to figure out my next move. I realized that a lot of the jobs I was interested in required a master’s degree. It made sense purely from a career perspective to pursue that.
What, besides the diploma, did you take away?
The development theory courses I took have been highly relevant. Anyone who works in international development needs to have taken a theory class. Studies show that when development is done in a top-down manner, it doesn’t work and often serves purposes other than lifting countries out of poverty. That’s a crucial lesson but one that still hasn’t been fully internalized in the development sector.
You’re in a tough line of work. What keeps you going?
In a class I took at the Humphrey School, we read Frances Fox Piven, who says that social change is difficult to predict and make happen, but when it does, it happens quickly. The job of advocates of change is to be ready when the wave happens. If you look at my issue—climate change—we’re in a dire place right now. We have this global agreement that doesn’t get us close to the level of action that we need; we have an administration that doesn’t even think climate change is real. But if you believe that when change happens it occurs at a mind-bogglingly fast pace, there’s a reason for hope.